Shellac : London King’s Cross Scala

Steve Albini's still grumpy...

Steve Albini is not, it’s fair to say, a rock star who needs to be loved. For 20 years now, he’s made some of the most misanthropic and uncompromising music of our time, and done so with what often seems like contempt for his fans, never mind the straight music business. Hate is his doctrine but, like sluts – or, more accurately, like solitary and hostile men of a certain age – his fans keep coming back for more. And when Albini’s shows are as brutally exhilarating as this, it’s hardly surprising.

In the mid-’80s Albini’s first band, Big Black, set a big, ugly template for industrial punk, hardcore and the nastier end of American underground rock. His second band, the sensitively-named Rapeman, offended far more people than actually heard them, doubtless to Albini’s delight. Since 1992, he’s fronted [a]Shellac[/a], a trio that specialise in bile, violently punctuated math-rock and some pretty horrible jokes. For a day job, Albini dons a boilersuit and produces records for people like [a]Nirvana[/a], the [a]Pixies[/a], [a]PJ Harvey[/a], and anyone else who can afford his reputedly competitive rates. Famed for doing little more than stick mics in front of speakers, there’s no fucking around on an Albini record.

And no fucking around in [a]Shellac[/a], either. Their infrequent records and gigs might suggest they’re a hobby band but tonight they sound anything but. For a start, they’re unforgivingly tight, as if they’ve rehearsed non-stop in the two years since their last visit. Thunderously unsentimental, [a]Shellac[/a]’s war on fuss is exemplified by their homemade amps, stark silver boxes featuring just one control – a volume knob. Anything else would be a decadent indulgence.

What’s more unnerving is that amid the clenched intensity, the gut-punching aggression of songs like ‘My Black Ass’ and ‘Billiard Player Song’, they’re also extremely funny. So bassist Bob Weston tells sick gags, sings the praises of sticking tiger balm up your arse and initiates snarky Q&A sessions with the audience which – as Albini points out – invariably end up with the “passive-aggressive” band mocking their devotees. And in the classic ‘Wingwalker’, the song halts for Albini and Weston to do childlike impressions of planes. “When I’m in your backyard, I will fuck you up,” concludes Albini. After two decades of abuse from this endearingly unpleasant man, we’d hope for nothing less.

John Mulvey